Kamran Ince at the center of Present Music’s “Water” concert
The biggest event in Present Music’s 30-year history is set for Saturday evening, Aug. 27, at the Marcus Center, within and around Uihlein Hall. Artistic director Kevin Stalheim wanted a big turnout, and free tickets did the trick. They’ve all been claimed. He’ll have a packed house within and a big crowd around Uihlein for the long list of events outside before and after the concert proper.
Stalheim chose water as a theme, at a time when Milwaukee’s movers are seizing upon water technology as the city’s ticket out of Rust-Belt thinking and into high tech. Starting at 7 p.m. outdoors, the Cream City Chorus will perform water-themed songs while the Milwaukee Mask and Puppet Theatre operates jellyfish, shark, row boat and trout puppets. Raffle tickets will be available for purchase to win a pair of Ocean Kayaks from Johnson Outdoors in addition to many other prizes. At 7:30pm, the Present Music musicians and key water and Milwaukee figures will arrive on a fleet including Irish currachs and the Milwaukee Fire Department boat. The musicians will lead the procession into Uihlein Hall to begin the main concert.
After the concert, it’s back outside for a party featuring the Herman Astro band and art works by students in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Department of Art and Design.
For the concert proper, Stalheim has brought in Danceworks, more UWM art and design imagery, the Milwaukee Choral Artists, the Vocal Arts Academy of Milwaukee and the Bel Canto Boys Choir. He’s expanded the Present Music Ensemble to the size of a small orchestra. He programmed water music by David Lang, Timothy Andres, Julia Wolfe and put together a little something of his own.
Ince produced a 19-minute water fantasy involving a 2o+ orchestra, women’s choir and children’s choir. I heard 30 minutes of rehearsal Thursday night. This fantastical thing includes water sloshed around in a basin, amplified. The choristers come armed with spoons and jars half-filled with gravel; they stir on cue to suggest the sound of waves. Dreamy oscillations of between two notes seem so simple, but Ince trips up expectations with sudden meter shifts. He peppers the piece with raucous, snarling scrapings and squawks in the strings and winds.
He’s serious about all of this, and carefully instructed the choristers on the relative speeds of stone-stirring.
“You see, this is morning, and small waves are just coming up,” he told them. “The stirring should be fast, but light.”
The string players weren’t so sure about scraping technique.
“Play the G, then it’s like you just get stuck,” Ince said. They achieved a shudder-inducing scratching, and everyone was all smiles.
I know Ince well. I went along when he and PM toured Turkey in 1994. I’ve heard and written about all the many pieces he’s written for Present Music. And I wrote the liner notes for the multi-disc collection of his music now being released on the Naxos label.
Ince is essentially an intuitive, emotional composer blessed with a great internal ear and wild sonic imagination.
“It starts here,” he said, after rehearsal, pointing to his gut. “The first thing is this feeling, something I can’t put into words. Then I make the most potent transformation I can manage of that thing — that feeling — into sound. Everything comes from that, or is in reaction to that.”
Ince has spent a lot of time around and on the sea, and not just in the warm, sunny Mediterranean waters off Turkey. At age 7, he was a passenger on a coal ship that sailed from Virginia to Bruges, Belgium.
This piece began with his vivid memory of waves lapping at the hull of a boat at anchor, and the sound of cable clacking against a mast in the wind.
“The impetus is the soft sound of all of that,” he said.
He got at that with the little jars of stones, with airy murmurings in the winds, with dreamy oscillations in the choir. But he’s also stood at the prow of a Turkish gulet as it barged through the crests of waves. That’s in the music, too.
“As the boat goes through the waves, it makes the schhhhuuu, schhhhuuu, as the hull hits the water,” Ince said. “I tried to get those sounds with various cymbals.”
He wanted the initial metallic impact, but not the sustained ring. With the aid of a percussionist, he found gels, little dampers placed on the cymbals, that gave him just what he wanted.
“The sea can be very violent, too, very scary,” he said. “The raucous music expresses that. What is calmness and beauty and peace without violence?”
Don’t get the wrong impression; this is music, not a series of sound effects.
Ince composes as a certain sort of novelist writes. He doesn’t plot everything out in advance; he lets his materials — his characters, in a sense — evolve and encounter one another as they will.
“You start with a feeling, which becomes some sounds,” he said. “You can go left or right or up or down from there.
“As I’ve become a more mature composer, I’ve become more organized. When I look back at my own music, I find it amazing how connected everything is.”
As he leafed through the thick score, he noted how the gentle, lapping-wave idea returned again and again, not literally, but in spirit. He identified sections of stillness and surge, and how they interact. The first section is an A-B-A form of sorts. B could stand for boom.
“I needed to hit you with something, to show the extroverted side of the sea,” Ince said. “So there are these high trumpets, and two glockenspiels. Usually, one glock is enough.”
If section 1 is A/quiet B/raucous A/quiet, section 2 is inverse, with new raucous material as C-B-C.
“And then we get some music,” Ince quipped. But he meant it: The choir sings a dreamy Siren song.
“But that wasn’t enough. I needed to put it into second gear, make it more exciting and flowing, and a little more traditonal.”
The comes the big buildup, the Surge section. After the big climax, the music dies down suddenly then gently washes away.